tv Washington Week PBS May 25, 2012 8:00pm-8:30pm PDT
gwen: a special memorial weekend program -- four white house reporters and authors on four different presidents, tonight on "washington week." commanders in chief, gwen: commanders in chief, leaders of the free world, presidents of the united states, the most exclusive club in the world. how they governed, how they struggled, how they got along or didnt. we take a special look at the men of 1600 pennsylvania avenue through the eyes of the reporters whove covered them. michael duffy of "time" magazine," john harris of "politico," peter baker of "the new york times" and christi parsons of "tribune" newspapers. >> award-winning reporting and analysis covering history as it happens.
from our nation's capitol, this is "washington week" with gwen ifill, produced in association with "national journal." corporate funding for washington week is provided by norfolk -- one line. helps shippers forge a path to prosperity. helps workers get back to work. one line is an engine for the economy and the future. norfolk southern, one line, infinite possibilities. >> this rock has never stood still. since 1875 we've been there for our clients through good times and bad. when their needs changed, we were there to meet them. through the years from insurance to investment management, from
real estate to retirement solutions, we've developed new ideas for the financial challenges ahead. this rock has never stood still. and that's one thing that will never change. prudential. corporate funding is also provided by -- boeing, at&t. rethink possible. additional funding is also provided by the annenberg foundation, the corporation for public broadcasting and by contributions to your pbs station from viewers like you. thank you. >> once again, from washington, moderator gwen ifill. gwen: good evening. we have a special treat for you tonight -- an in-depth look at the presidency, and the men who held the job. there are five living presidents right now -- the oldest, jimmy carter. george w. bush invited the four other members of the club to come back to the white house
shortly before president-elect obama was sworn in. the message -- they were all on the same team now. >> one message that i have and i think we all share is that we want you to succeed. whether we're a democrat or republican, we care deeply about this country. and to the extent that we can, we look forward to sharing our experiences with you. all of us who have served in this office understand that the office itself transcends the individual. and we wish you all the very best, and so does the country. >> this is an extraordinary gathering. all the gentlemen here understand both the pressures and possibilities of this office, and for me to have the opportunity to get advice, good counsel and fellowship with these individuals is extraordinary and i'm very grateful to all of them, but again, thank you, mr. president, for hosting us. gwen: and with that, we saw the
latest iteration of what authors nancy gibbs and michael duffy call in their new book, "the presidents club." we have a reporters club here tonight, folks who have covered four presidents -- obama, bush, bill clinton and george h.w. bush. first to you, michael. how exclusive is this club? >> well, only five people can join it. what's interesting is that we elect the members, they don't, which is a little bit different than most clubs. we think of our presidents as one at a time. we elect them one at a time, we cover them one at a time. we write books about them one at a time. what nancy and i thought is let's pair them up. we all know in our lives that relationships matter. we thought if we held them up in pairs and shined a light on that we'd learn something about the men and the presidency. and we discovered that the club is a place where there are partnerships, there are rivalries, sometimes there's sabotage and there's redemption, too. they all come out of that office with scars and regrets. gwen: and secrets, and a surprising amount of bishopship.
>> especially after they've left the presidency. it's almost like they rediscovered politics. it's hard to become bipartisan in the last 15 or 20 years. if you go back to hoover and truman, there were moments where men were particularly good at teaming up. gwen: i want to talk to you all about the presidents you covered in kind of context of the things they shared, the kind of challenges they shared, starting with the challenges of war and peace. that's something every president has to control. and, john, you've covered and written books about bill clinton. the vietnam had do, it seems to me, really played a role in his election and then continued after he was elected. i remember covering him and having him explain what his role was and was not during the war. >> i don't think bill clinton could have been elected in 1992, except that the cold war was
ending. so it's safe to take a chance on an untested democrat who was very much of the vietnam generation. and i think it shaped his -- at least the first part of his presidency. you're talking, penguin, about growth of individuals in -- gwen, about growth of individuals in the presidency. bill clinton was not comfortable as a foreign poll sipt, as a commander in chief at the beginning of his term. by the end he relished the role and a lot of people think he was pretty good at it. that evolution was hard for him, because it required making really hard, in some cases, unpopular decisions. the most important one was sending troops to bosnia, even though the polls told him that that was a political loser. >> peter, george w. bush's presidency changed fundamentally after 9/11. all of a sudden iraq and afghanistan became defining features of his presidency. >> right. we had three presidents in a row in bill clinton, george w. bush
and now barack obama who came to office without that foreign policy background and each of them in their own way has had to become a foreign policy leader. george bur's crucible came in one horrible day. there was no real preparation for that for anybody. it's interesting, because he's also -- in talking about bill clinton, he's sort of the opposite side of the same generation, right? one of the things that george w. bush came to office saying was he was the other side of the generation that he kind of disdained in bill clinton at the time. now they're friends. but if bill clinton was part of the more sexual revolution, the protest movement of the 1960's. george w. bush had rebelled against that at the same school, yale, where he found all of this sort of intellectual elitism of the east to be offputting and that shaped his presidency both in terms of how he related to the country and foreign policy challenges. gwen: our current president,
kris ty, president obama, looking at him and how young he looked three years ago, but when he was a young senator he made his name by saying i'm against the war in iraq. once he became president -- and speaking of crews ibbles, there was a crucible of trying to hunt down osama bin laden, there was the crucible of trying to keep the promises that he made. turns out that he was a far more activist president in terms of war and in terms of drone strikes and in terms of pursuing our enemy than anybody would have thought looking at him as a senator. >> right. and it's so ironic, too, that he ended up presiding over two wars as having made his name as an opponent of the iraq war. this is a place where we've seen the most growth and change in the president, or i have, in his personality. if you look at the analysis that he and his staff conducted of the afghanistan war in the first review period, it went on and on. it was a tortured process for
weeks and weeks in which he's this dispassionate, analytical person, who thought he could wrestle this thing to the ground by studying it over and over and over again ad nauseam. and then ultimately sort of giving in to the pressures on him at the pentagon. but when you contrast that with what we've seen more recently -- the bin laden operation came down to instinct, i think, and, you know, maybe libya, too, to a large degree. and i think what i hear from folks who are around the president is that he's much more -- he relies more on his instincts now, and that seems like a significant change. gwen: george h.w. bush. i want to talk about the unfinished business part of his presidency. because in not getting saddam hussein, that kind of governed a lot what happened afterwards. >> when he liberates kuwait and six other nations helping him pay for it in 1991, he and his team make a very clear decision not to go past -- tossing his
own army out of kuwait but not chase him all the way to baghdad. a very small resistance inside his administration. but among the group that was deciding, not even a close call. >> including dick cheney. >> exactly. but, of course, saddam doesn't go away. and i think the important incident, i think, may be not something that happened during george w. bush's presidency, but something that happened during bill clinton, which was not long after clinton comes into office in, that first summer, saddam mounts an assassination attempt on h.w. bush while he's visiting kuwait on a two or three-year anniversary of that liberation. clearly that's something that affected the son. gwen: let's talk about the ex-presidency. even the one currently in office is trying desperately not to be an ex-president. but they all have handled it differently. bill clinton has become mr.
humanitarian in chief. >> when bill clinton's presidency ended in its closing days, one of his close aides confided to me, you know, i'm really worried. i worry that he's going to end up like willie mays. remember willie mays the hall of famer ended his career at an atlantic city casino, because he didn't have the judgment and needed the money. the fear is that without bill clinton, without all the organization, without all the staff aides, would not -- would be directionalist and wouldn't know how to use his platform. that fear turned out to be really misplaced. clinton did, i think, kind of flail around for maybe six months after his presidency ended. but then he took on real purpose, and he's been a phenomenally active ex-president. he's become a much more bipartisan figure than he ever was during his eight years in office. and i think he has -- he's achieved his ambition, which is to be kind of a figure of the
world. a representative of the united states, but a figure of the world in a very effective way. gwen: you said bipartisan, but he's still been more active in politics than, say, george w. bush has been. it was a minor spectacle of him last week being asked whether he endorsed romney and he said, yeah, just as elevator doors closed. he hasn't been involved at all in politics, like his vice president has. >> it's interesting. if you go to the white house today you can still see the scratch marks where bill clinton had to be dragged. [laughter] he said repeatedly he would still love to be president if he could be. george w. bush was done. he was ready to go home. he had a very tumultuous eight years. in december of 2008 he's about to leave office and he's giving the kennedy center award to morgan freeman. he recalls his movie, "deep impact." he says that's when a comet hits the earth and destroys civilization, about the only thing that hasn't happened in the last eight years. he felt financial crisis,
terrorism, war, he had enough. his model for post presidency is modeled after his father. he wanted to be oust the picture. he did not want to be making things complicated for his successor. he swore up and down that he was not going to complicate president obama's life the way he felt president carter, in particular, and sometimes president clinton had done when he was president. so he has stayed out of politics. it's also a function, of course, of the fact that today's republicans want to move beyond president bush, of course. he left office with low ratings, and they're happy to present themselves as not his successors. gwen: it sounds, too, as if he's almost sanguine in retirement and has some sort of faith that history will judge him more favorably than the president. >> he came to town, as you said, for that moment. they caught him in the elevator. he came to town because they're promoting a collection of interviews with dissidents around the world. if president clinton is a man of the world, president bush wants
to be a man of freedom representing people in places in the middle east and elsewhere who are fighting for democracy. and he is presenting himself in that frame. gwen: was there awkwardness between the father and the son, both of them having been president? >> they came from different eras. they had very different ideas about foreign policy. every family has things it doesn't talk about, and i think in the bush family one of the things they don't talk about is the foreign policies of the father and the son because they're so different. and also, i think the father decided to act cheerfully as the son's father -- chiefly as the son's father, not his counsel and advisor. i wanted to say something quickly about jimmy carter. carter left office. he was been tossed unexpectedly and by his standards, he went home. he was depressed for a year. it took him a while what to do next. he wrote a book and then
re-invented what it means to be a former president, a model that clinton has consciously followed. gwen: isn't jimmy carter -- in the club between us -- the least popular member? >> the fascinating fact about carter is december 7 of this year he becomes the longest-living former president in american history. so he has had 31 years, eight months and 18 days that he's going to break. he's going to invents not just one second career, maybe two. >> you notice in the picture after the obama election, carter sort of standing off to the side, visually not looking like a part of that. >> people may change their roles as the ex-president, gwen, but i don't think they thank their personalities. bill clinton, each those's more bipartisan now, he's still a thoroughly political creature. jimmy carter was unpopular in washington because he was pious and moralistic, that's how he is as ex-president. george h.w. bush is raised as a
gentleman, that's his persona. gwen: cristi, as the youngest of the crew, does he reach out to his predecessors? is there any connection at all? >> i think he does reach out to them. it was interesting. i think it was in that moment in the oval office that we just looked at, or maybe shortly afterwards, he said they're incredibly gracious, they all know the loneliness of this job. and it seemed like something polite after a cocktail party. enough it seems to me that he actually does need those people and reaches out to them. gwen: then there's the day that bill clinton came into the press briefing room a long time after president obama left. >> i loved that moment. that came after the shellacking, remember, of the midterm election. obama had a little humility on him. and clinton came in to chat and then afterward they went into the briefing room together. and i remember thinking, oh, man, clinton is going to eat his
lunch in here. this is just -- that's where he excelled and did so well. and then sure enough, obama did give him the podium. it was almost like a big fat early christmas present. >> before clinton comes in that afternoon, president obama had in a series of advisors from the reagan era and he was asking them, what did reagan do when he faced adversity? how much of that did he show the public? here you have president obama reaching back to the reagan era looking for advice. this is the other thing about these presidents, they all study each other, they read each other's biographies. >> obama started out so disdainful of clinton, in what he thought was kind of a small-bull -- gwen: and then he found out -- >> this guy knows something. >> you could argue what cristi said earlier, the counterterrorism policies and foreign policy. he's not going to say it on the campaign trail now, but i think he has more of a sense of understanding what bush was going through than he might have
in the campaign. gwen: the most famous odd couple is george clinton and george h.w. bush. he calls himself the black sheep of the family, bill clinton does. isn't it strange that he runs through all of this? he's everybody's strange bedfellow. >> he's inviting himself to kenny bunkport for vacations in the summer and not taking no for an answer. in the bush family nicknames matter and they call clinton "brother from another mother." i think just as the son has watched the father learn how to be a former president, i think bill clinton has watched carter, has watched herbert walker's sort of careful prudential way of inserting and non-inserting and tried to copy it. >> the striking transformation has been with the bush family. i don't think bill clinton ever had real malice toward george h.w. bush.
he respected him on one level but thought he was from a different generation. the bush family it was palpable for years into clinton's presidency how much -- then and barbara bush as well. gwen: wasn't that part of it? >> they taut he wasn't their type. and the fact that they've now embraced him i think is pretty remarkable. >> i interviewed president clinton once. he tells the story about how george w. bush clearly didn't like him. he felt very personal, the he said jeb didn't either, but he was a better actor. he said i made a real project, president clinton said, of breaking down who this guy, w., was, and trying to make this connection with him. and they did in the asian tsunami. >> and now they're kind of business partners. don't forget a couple of times a year clinton and bush ii go out, sit down in wing chairs on a stage and make a lot of money just talking about what it means to be president. so that's my favorite latest detail about that relationship. >> michael, do you think that's
tacky? i remember when ronald reagan made a speech in japan that there was a big uproar about it. now the enormous sums that ex-presidents make -- it's seen as part of one of the perk question sits of the job. what's your take on it? >> when truman wrote his memoirs, he asked eisenhower to give him a special tax break, and eisenhower refused. there's billions always been a sensitivity about how ex-presidents are allowed to make their way in the world. they used to make money by donating papers. gwen: one of the interesting things, when we watch the presidents, we watch them gray, we watch them scale, scale back the promises they made and their ambitions. i wonder whether that's just what the presidency does. for instance, you think about president obama. i'm going to close guantanamo on day one. i'm going to have a single-payer health care plan. i'm going to change immigration. in fact he's increased
deportations. is it the office or is it who he always was? >> i don't know. i do think early in his career that he pulled toward the middle and doing what was possible. in that sense it doesn't surprise me. but i noticed this the other day when he was speaking in des moines, iowa. you know, it was kind of a fiery speech at the end of the day, and he had gone after -- he was going after mitt romney, private equity. it was a feisty little speech. there at the very end he said, "oh, and by the way, we're not as divided as our politics might show." [laughter] and it was really -- back in 2008, i mean, that was the big thundering thing -- or 2004. that was the 2004 convention speech. gwen: i feel we've lived through lots of scalebacks. president george h.w. bush, no new taxes was the biggest scaleback of all-time. he had said that. and parent of the reason he
wasn't re-elected is because he broke that promise. >> it's a defining moment for the presidents we're still covering. they were clobbered and challenged. winged early in his election and never recovered and we are all living through. it's no surprise that no one has broken that promise since. all these men have wrestled for the need to work their bases, particularly the latest three, but they're mindful that the great middle of the american public has no use for partisanship at all. that thing at the end of the speech, oh, by the way, independence, i get you, too. i'm just not speaking to you right now. gwen: i think about bill clinton, who also got elected part of on the reputation to change agent, but he scaled back welfare. >> well, that was a promise that he had made. he ended up making it not on his terms. he ended up doing it because of the pressure from republicans. i think bill clinton learned a lot about the presidency and
went with -- you put one damn foot in front of the other from the first day to the last and you can get a lot done. even if it doesn't go according to the sort of grand plan that you might have had when you walked into it. gwen: for george w. bush it was the unaccomplished missions. the promises he made as kind of the cowboy president to go and get these guys that he couldn't quite get. a war that he launched that he couldn't quite end. >> obviously he underestimated how difficult iraq was going to be, he underestimated the absorption of his whole presidency. he took it over. he wanted to remake social security, remake the tax code, remake immigration, all of which basically got undermined by the continuing controversy over iraq. if bill clinton tried to move the democratic party to the middle a little bit, george w. bush, his sort of unfinished project was to kind of move his party more toward the middle, at
least on some issues. this compassionate conservatism on education, aids relief in africa, all of which has been thrown aside by the current republicans as they are moving back to the right. gwen: a final thought, michael. i'm curious about the little secrets along the way. they taught each other how to salute, left each other little notes. what struck you the most about how these presidents understood each other? >> by the time dick nixon and bill clinton are staying up late at night to talk on the phone about what to do about china and russia and how to organize your day as president, then you know there are things being passed from president to president that we will will not find out about until much later. gwen: in fact, i think bill clinton said he read the letter that he got from nixon every year, which is remarkable. and the other thing i also want to ask you about really quickly is the salute. >> well, when clinton goes to see a reagan after he's elected up in l.a., he asks reagan for any advise you might have, and reagan says, well, i've been watching you.
you don't know how to salute and you've got to learn how to salute and they sit in his office practicing. [laughter] this is the real benefit of the club. gwen: well, thank you to you all for a fascinating conversation. we have to leave you now, but the conversation continues online. well keep talking on the "washington week webcast extra." you can find it at pbs.org/washingtonweek. keep track of daily developments with me every night on the pbs newshour. and its the beginning of a very special weekend. dont forget to honor and remember those who gave their lives for our freedom. thats the best kind of memorial day. well see you again around the table next week on "washington week." good night. captioned by the national captioning institute --www.ncicap.org-- s >> funding for "washington week" is provided by --
corporate funding is also provided by prudential, norfolk southern, antawn jamison, rethink possible. additional funding is provided by the eyen burg foundation, the corporation for public broadcasting and by contributions to your pbs station from viewers like you. contributions to your pbs station from viewers like you. thank you.